Tag Archives: koans

That’s a good question

When we take up with a good question, themore difficult cropped 2 entire universe is there with us inside our questioning. The birds chirp our question, people smile it, and our emotions paint it in jagged lines or swirls. We don’t have to take anything for granted as being true, and actually we don’t have to do that for things we think of as false, either. We can experiment with stepping out of all our assumptions. It can be very uncomfortable at first to live inside a question (why do you think we have so many answers for things?), but it can also be absolutely exhilarating.

WP_20150124_057If we have a question, often we also have some idea about what the answer will be, or at least an approved list of possibilities. Many questions are born inside answers and live out their entire lives there. Various explanations may trot out at different times during our questioning, often awkwardly cobbled together from used materials that don’t quite fit flush, but we may notice that their interchangeability subtracts from their credibility. Like a charging bull being attacked by tiny mice, a good question will just keep on trucking, no matter how clever and complex its hopeful answers may be. It will pare away our certainties about the answers we come upon, the beliefs we hold that spurred the question, and identity of the questioner itself.

We might say that the least interesting thing in questioning is to receive a satisfying answer. Many kinds of answers provide something I’ll call closure; they rescue us from the vast ocean of ambiguity that comprises the universe. But if we accept them, we are like a gutter-dwelling beggar who believes he is a king. On the other hand, there is a breed of truly helpful answer; they are actually more like a question wearing an answer mask. These dubious answers entice us with promises of certainty, only to turn and push us deeper and deeper into our questioning, widening our field of experience and enlivening the demons of ambiguity. If we are tricked into freedom by one of these answers, we become the beggar who really is a king.

Deep questioning of this kind is a bleeding ground short croppedparadoxical activity. Rather than asking good questions to secure certainty, we ask in order to release ourselves from it. When we pursue a good question with the entirety of our being, when we really listen, the barrier between us and the world begins to dissolve. We forget who or what we thought we were and surprising other possibilities emerge. As provisional answers fall away, we may forget the original question we started off with, being left to bear the heart of questioning itself. When we are open in this way, we might discover that we are nestled in the wide arms of the world. Everything is nourishing. Everything is speaking the answer to us and it is incomprehensible by our usual way of thinking.



Some thoughts on kindness

helping injured soliderI helped an elderly man with his groceries today and it opened my heart. Then I had some thoughts on kindness.

You can keep your eyes open. Look around you. Chances are, there is someone very near who needs your kindness. Most certainly, it is you; but there are others as well. You know those superhero movies where the world is in peril and there’s only one person who can save it? That person is you. We need your help. But don’t worry, you don’t have to move to the slums of Calcutta to live with lepers or give all your money to charity. Even if you are rich and you want to give your money away to people in need, that’s fine, but it’s not necessary. Kindness doesn’t need to cost anything and perhaps it means more when there is no money involved.

If you’re not sure how to begin,traincar help you can start small, like stopping your car so another person can pull in front of you in traffic or offering to help an older person lift a frozen turkey into their shopping cart. This is perhaps especially important during the holidays, when people are stressed and rushing and striving to meet so many expectations—the busyness of it all is enough to drive anyone bonkers. So be kind. And if you find yourself overwhelmed with frustration or anger and it seems like too great a task to be kind, then you can be kind to that. It just goes on and on like that. It grows, and although you might not notice it at first, small acts of kindness radiate out and enrich the world around you.

If you don’t know how to be kind to yourself, then start with others; if you don’t know how to be kind to others, then start with yourself. Or an animal. Or a plant. It doesn’t matter, it’s all kindness. Being kind is not always easy, but it is always possible.

And you’re perfect for the job.

little angels

No. Just No.

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened,
and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
. . . Then the eyes of both of them were opened,
and they realized they were naked.
-Genesis 3:4-5

“What do you feel before you think?
What do you see before you blink?
Who do you battle in your dreams?”

My Cat, Uncle Larry, and the Inherent Perfection of this Moment

Our cat Amigo loves me with great intensity.  When he sees me he flops onto his back, purrs loudly and presents his belly for me to rub. Sometimes I feel bad because I don’t have time to pet him, but in that case he just follows me around the house, squawking until I do.  When he’s not following me around, he’s usually eating or sleeping in a piece of sunlight or playing with a WP_20141005_001misplaced hair rubber band.  Far be it from me to assume I know what attends the deepest recesses of Amigo’s walnut-sized brain, but I have the feeling that he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how he should have been born a Calico or ruminating on our other cats’ opinions of him. I could learn a lot from Amigo.

Fibromyalgia napkinThis moment is complete.  If it could be any better, it would be, and if that were the case, it would be a different moment.  But that doesn’t stop me from trying to improve it.  I notice that my mind tends to seek out the flaws in things, or at least some part of it does.  It’s like a crazy uncle who always does something deranged to ruin family gatherings.  He’s always willing to criticize the food, but you won’t find him helping in the kitchen.  Everyone’s favorite part of the evening is after Uncle Larry has passed out on the couch.

Things either exist or they don’t.  When they do it’s as though they carry a fundamental blessing just by virtue of their existence, like a stamp of approval from the universe.  It’s easy to see that things like kittens and rainbows and extraordinarily gifted artists are blessed, but what about terrorists?  What about social injustice and that nosy next-door neighbor who knows everyone’s business?  If I think back through my day, I can remember a hundred things that were just not quite right in some way.  That crazy uncle part of the mind has an opinion on everything, from how people drive or dress to the squeaking-grinding noise of the elliptical machine–even what I think.  And don’t look now, because he’s coming your way.

You are not outside the roger-rabbituniverse. When I’m living in Uncle Larry’s world, it’s as though there’s an unbreachable rift between myself and my life; there’s a background and a foreground and I seem to be the only one inhabiting the foreground.  It feels like my skin is too tight, my mind is too tight, or somehow the world just doesn’t fit.  That’s a painful way to live, as a sore thumb, the only skinny-dipper left standing on cold conrete while everyone else frolics in the pool.

Life is unmanageable.  We are ever comparing the world to our ideas about how it ought to be–husband should have emptied the dishwasher, wish it wasn’t so cold right now, my sister should be happier–what a way to live in the world! Actually, it’s not really living in the world, it’s living in a little tiny box  with the word “world” neatly printed on the inside.  Standard operating procedure is to try to run the troops holiday mail delugeshow from inside the box by managing external conditions, internal conditions, other people’s thoughts and behaviors, our own thoughts and behaviors, their impressions of us, our impressions of us–the list is endless.  You’ve heard of the American Dream, right? Well, this is the promise of the Human Dream: If It Exists, We Will Manage It!  Something opens at the moment when we realize there’s something missing in this approach to life–perhaps we don’t have all the answers, maybe nobody does, and maybe answers are not all that valuable anyhow.

The universe is irreducible.  The mind does its best to help us navigate our lives by creating a sort of Cliff’s Notes about things.  This is a good method for understanding how to set up a bank account or drive a stick shift, but it doesn’t work remarkably well for the bigger questions in life.  It tends to make jerky out of our experience, drying out all the juice and cutting it down to bite-size pieces.  We lose something when this happens, an intimacy, a deep connection with life.

Life is inexplicable.  A friend recently A pair of colliding galaxies about 62 million light years from Earth.suffered a devastating loss.  After decades of struggling with deep loneliness and depression, he had finally found a partner who made him feel whole.  In short order they were engaged and he moved all his things into her apartment, but within a month she died abruptly.  I had seen my friend profoundly depressed before, but never so bereft of hope as when he related this tale to me.  In a moment like this, often there is an urge to say something to fill the silence, to offer some helpful words to alleviate a loved one’s suffering or our own discomfort. We want to help, but perhaps above all we want to make sense of what has happened, for him and for us.  But these moments, like all moments, are complete expressions of the universe and as such they are irreducible.  Life is not meant to be suppressed or managed or ruled from inside our tiny box and so perhaps what is truly needed is just our participation, our full presence.  And so while I could have offered my friend any number of trite consolations, I didn’t feel the need to change him or myself, and I knew that whatever I explanation gave him would have been more for my own benefit anyways.

The universe is always moving towardWP_20140817_001 awakening.  Experiences like the one my friend is having shatter the certainty of the world we have been living in; they are a form of awakening, and perhaps that’s why people often find enlightenment in the midst of terrible suffering.  Sometimes the world opens to us accompanied by the gilded voices of angels and sometimes darkened by the shadowy work of demons, but either way it opens, and when it does we find ourselves in the middle of the deepest sea, unable to see land in any direction. My friend is a man of strong faith, someone who has looked to God his whole life for strength and support.  “Someone told me that God never gives you more than you can handle,” he said, “but that’s bullshit.” He is in the middle of it now, treading water out beyond where the lights on shore can reach him.  Rather than pointing him in one direction or another, it seemed enough to keep him company while he swims.

Like the student in this koan, like my friend, like all of us, we seek an explanation, some tool we might use to carve meaning into our experience.  But at some point we notice that our tools never quite do the trick–our thoughts about the world never come close to encapsulating it–and actually our attempts to reach dry land only serve to push us farther out to sea.  And so perhaps the best thing we can do in the beginning is entertain the possibility that there might be some value in just being where we are. Perhaps this very moment carries with it the blessing of existence–like kittens and exceptional art–and we can trust what it’s giving us.  If we let the koan take away our usual way of understanding things, it might leave us open to discover a new way of living.

Perhaps then, even Uncle Larry has Buddha nature.


A story about koans and Love and creativity

Koans pick the locks on the narratives that define our lives. When those narratives become exposed and transparent we have the freedom to move through them and outside them, to rewrite entire portions of our story. We recalibrate our sense of what we are capable of caged lionsas individuals and what is possible in this universe by taking risks, and when we stop limiting ourselves according to what we believe is possible it’s as though the universe has suddenly opened the corral and given us freedom to pursue what we love. We may not have even known or acknowledged what we love until this moment because it laid outside the realm of possibility, so we might stand at the open paddock gate for a long time, wondering where to go.

But maybe one day we have some wild idea about a project or a passion or a fear and instead of muting it immediately with the muzzle of possibility, we think, “Holy moly, do I dare break my own rules and follow that dream?” Do we take that chance and step off the ranch? If we say yes, it is at that moment that the wealth of creative energy in the universe comes to bear in us. When we make the decision to set out on the course that Love has charted, without knowing where it will lead us, suddenly it seems we become beneficiary to a vast and mysterious storehouse of resources that we never knew existed. Purpose gives us wings, problems become puzzles, and everything becomes useful.

trophiesAlthough it can be deeply rewarding to give life to something and bring it to completion, we might find that the completion of our task actually brings on a kind of disappointment, even a sense of grief despite what we may consider a great accomplishment. While we were engaged in our holy mission to find the grail we enjoyed the blessings of Heaven and weathered the curses of Hell, but we have brought the golden cup back to the paddock and now it sits coldly on a shelf somewhere, perhaps adored by others but not as much by us as when we were searching for it. It turns out that all along there were two grails, the one we sought and the one we found, and now that we possess the grail we have found, we have lost the grail we sought. Such can be the irony of getting what one wants.

And so we can say that perhaps our finest reward was not in the completion of our work, but in the struggle and search, the dirt-stained clothes and sweaty arms, and the feeling of Landscapestrain and release as we enjoyed the grace that comes with doing Love’s work. Perhaps the most valuable thing was not the grail itself, but the connection we enjoyed with the things of this life which colluded to bring us to it. And so we set out again on that dusty road of Love, the wind at our back and another grail in heart. And may we be so blessed as to never find what we are looking for.

A Place Without Cold or Heat: A 3-Day Zen Koan Meditation Retreat

September 25 – 28, 2014 in Crozet, Virginia

Note: We have one full-time overnight bed left, but plenty of day spots!
COuntry Road BannerA student asked Dongshan, “When cold and heat come, how can we avoid them?”
Dongshan said, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?”
The student asked, “What’s the place without cold or heat?”
Dongshan said, “When it’s cold, the cold kills you. When it’s hot, the heat kills you.”

I love pretty much everything about meditation retreats—the woody smell of incense, the sight of cushions and chairs neatly lined against the walls, the gossamer sound of breaths arriving from all sides of the meditation hall. I love the stillness and the silence; I love the deep sense of connection I discover there, not only with myself and my fellow retreat-goers but with the grass and the birds and the food I am eating.

I also love koans (most of the time). They are fine companions on sunny days as well as when things turn dark, because they lead me out of the realm of the expected. That’s good for me because a lot of the time I think I know everything. What is a koan? Simply put, they are stories used in the Zen tradition to open the heart and awaken the mind. The Dongshan dialogue at the top of the page will be our koan for this retreat. For a further exploration of the question of koans, check this out.

Amigo no pantsThis is a residential retreat that has been designed to be accessible to people at all levels of experience. Actually, koans are designed to be accessible to people at all levels of experience, so I suppose I can give them the credit. Koans aren’t interested in how long you’ve been meditating, whether or not you’re a good person, or if you cheated on your diet today. They have their own agenda and they will be friends with anyone (yes, even you).

It is not always easy to set aside the other areas of our lives to attend a residential retreat. We may be apprehensive about what may or may not happen while we are away. But the stillness and silence of retreat has a way of softening the boundaries between our inner life and outer life. In retreat we can’t help but transform, and the whole world transforms with us. We come home seeing with new eyes and hearing with new ears and our life responds to that.

The Details

PZI profile picA Brief Overview: We are affiliated with Pacific Zen Institute. Although this retreat incorporates many aspects of formal Zen practice, it is by no means a typical Zen retreat. In keeping with the spirit of Pacific Zen Institute’s mission to create a truly western Zen culture, the focus will be on the transformative process of koan practice itself rather than strict adherence to traditional Asian Buddhist forms.

The retreat will be held in a large cabin generously provided by the Our Lady of the Angels monastery in Crozet, Virginia. There are lots of trees, a large pond (with a boat!), and a porch for relaxing. There will be plenty of seated meditation, some koan-inspired activities, walks, and vegetarian food. It will be lovely!

Our Lady Pond squaredThe retreat will run from Thursday, September 25th to Sunday, September 28th. Participants are welcome to attend full-time or part-time as they wish, to stay overnight or just attend during the day(s). We will begin at 7:00pm on Thursday with meditation and a short ceremony. Participants will need to provide their own dinner the first night. The wake-up bell will be rung at 4:30am each morning and meditation will begin at 5:00am (There will be coffee!). Each block of meditation will consist of 25-minute periods of silent seated meditation punctuated by brief periods of walking meditation. There will also be some discussion/group work. We will have our regular morning meditation schedule on Sunday, followed by a closing ceremony at noon. Then you go home! (See the Retreat Schedule for more details.)

Note: If you are attending part-time, please take care to arrive and depart during breaks in the schedule so as not to disrupt meditation.

Food: Please provide your own dinner for Thursday. A vegetarian breakfast and dinner will be provided on Friday and Saturday, and breakfast on Sunday. Lunch will not be provided, so please bring your own for however many days you plan to attend (there is a refrigerator and smallish kitchen on-site, but please be aware that everyone will be sharing the space). Light snacks like fruit and nuts, and coffee and tea will also be available throughout the retreat.

Our Lady Porch SquaredAccommodations: Space is limited. Our cabin features 3 bedrooms and a loft, which altogether contain 6 single beds and 2 full-size beds available for those wishing to stay any or all nights. There are 2 full bathrooms (one on each floor). Please bring your own bed linens, blankets and towels as the monastery does not provide any (pillows are provided). Please let us know if you are a couple and would like to share one of the full beds. Sorry, there are no private rooms.

Cost: My original intention was for this retreat to be entirely free of charge. After further planning, my more realistic intention is to keep this retreat as inexpensive as possible while still covering operating costs. Any money remaining after operating costs are deducted will go directly to the Our Lady of the Angels monastery as a donation for generously providing us this space. Feel free to donate extra if you wish! No one will be turned away for lack of funds (to request a scholarship: before registering, please use the comments form at the bottom of this page to tell me how many days you would like to attend and how much you are able to pay). Please see the following fee schedule:

One day: $15.00
Two days: $30.00
Full-time (Thurs-Sun): $45.00

Work Practice: The famous Chinese Zen master Baizhang once said, “A day without work is a day without eating.” Well, that’s one way to look at it. There are a few simple jobs that need doing to keep the retreat running, but also, work practice is an excellent way to carry our meditation off the cushion and into our daily activities.

What to bring:

– Please wear comfortable clothing and bring shoes to walk in. The cabin we are staying in does have heat and air conditioning, but you may want to wear layers just in case.

– Please feel free to bring any meditation gear you would like to use (cushions, chairs, benches, etc.). The cabin has some chairs which you are welcome to use, but we are unable to provide meditation cushions.

– Bring something for the altar. It can be anything–something sacred to you, something that makes you smile, something you find particularly repulsive, whatever.

– A journal (or something to write with and on).

Silence: One of the jewels of retreat is silence. However, another one of the jewels of the Pacific Zen School is conversation and community. Please be considerate of others; if you find yourself involved in a conversation, please carry it away from the meditation hall and common areas so that others may enjoy the silence. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need to, but you might also notice that you don’t need to. Learning how to make mistakes is another jewel of retreat. Thanks!

bells & whistlesBells & Whistles: The leader will be timekeeper for meditation periods, lead walking meditation, ring the wake-up bell in the morning, and ring some kind of loud noisemaker to signal a 10-minute countdown for the next meditation block. Someone on the meal preparation crew will bang some kind of noisemaker to signal that breakfast or dinner is ready to eat. It’ll be fun and probably confusing at first, but you’ll get the hang of it!

I’m interested, but not sure I want to jump into a 3-day retreat with you people: Great! Come sit with us and see if you like our approach. Our group is called 16 Bodhisattvas: A Koan Small Group and we meet every other week at the JMRL library’s Central location in downtown Charlottesville, VA. We meet on Thursdays through June, after which we will be meeting on Mondays again. 6:00pm – 7:30pm. Bring a cushion or just yourself (chairs are provided). Check out our schedule of upcoming meeting dates.

Jesse Gassho refuge squarish cropped (2)

Who’s running this thing anyhow?: My name is Jesse Cardin. I have been working with koans for 8 years under the guidance of John Tarrant, Roshi (Director of Pacific Zen Institute). I’m the practice leader for the Charlottesville-based koan meditation group 16 Bodhisattvas and the author of the It’s Alive! blog. I’m particularly interested in how koans use the circumstances of each individual’s life to facilitate awakening and how koans can be adapted for use in mental health and substance abuse recovery.

Retreat Daily Schedule

5:00–7:00pm – Arrive/set up
7:00 – Meet in zendo: meditation and opening ceremony
9:00 – Close the day…Sleep!

5:00am – Wake up
5:30–8:00 – Meditation
8:00—10:00 – BREAKFAST / free time
10:00—12pm – Meditation/Group work or movement
12:00—2:00 – LUNCH / free time
2:00—5:00 – Meditation
5:30 – 7:00 – DINNER / free time
7:00 – 9:00 – Meditation/dharma talk/discussion
9:00 – Close day

5:00am – Wake up
5:30–8:00 — Meditation
8:00—9:30 – BREAKFAST / free time
9:30—12pm – Meditation
12:00 – Closing ceremony
12:00 – 2:00pm – Load out


Ready to Register?

Click the Donate button below to be magically transported to our secure PayPal payment site. Enter the appropriate amount for the number of days you wish to attend and follow the instructions to check out. We will email you as soon as possible after your payment is processed to confirm your registration details. (Don’t have a PayPal account? That’s cool, just click on the link on the lower-left corner of the payment screen, under “Don’t have a PayPal account?”)

One day: $15.00
Two days: $30.00
Full-time (Thurs-Sun): $45.00

Donate Button with Credit Cards


Have Some Questions?

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments or concerns via the comments web form below and I will respond as promptly as possible.


big answers to small questions

“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck!”


The koan:

The coin lost in the river is found in the river.
Oooh, what have we here?
Oooh, what have we here?

I love searching through old boxes in the basement, though it’s never planned. I’m usually in a hurry, on a mission to find some important component to a musical instrument, an instruction manual, or perhaps a piece of documentation. I am hyper-focused, goal-oriented, a bit feverish. But what’s interesting is that more often than not, I find much more than I was looking for: a box of old photographs, a favorite book, a compact disc from a band I used to love. I am waylaid. Squatting uncomfortably on the basement floor, I pore through the photographs, I start reading the book, or I start off in search of a CD player. I can’t remember what I was originally looking for and what’s more, I’m no longer aware that I was ever searching for something. I am lost in discovery. Later I come back to the original task or I don’t, but either way I have found something more interesting than what I had set out to find. My meditation goes the same way.

When I sit with this koan, often the theme of “lost and found” bubbles up. Sometimes I am immediately met with something precious I feel that I have lost–an opportunity, some self-esteem, free time–and yet sometimes there’s just a more generalized feeling of lack. It may appear as a sensation of craving or grief–an absence, though I don’t know what of. I remember one day feeling quite uneasy while holding a group meditation with this koan at work. I had begun the period with a475px-Deluge sense of ease and comfort, feeling pretty good about my introductory talk and confident that people would enjoy the meditation. A few minutes in, I suddenly lost all heart. I doubted my ability to lead the meditation. Then I doubted whether I had really ever done my job with any success. Then I began to doubt meditation practice altogether. Who am I to be teaching people meditation? Does this stuff even work?  I felt fear, panic–how was I going to continue on with this exercise in the face of this tremendous deluge of doubts? I noticed my stomach muscles were so tight that I was doubling over; clenched in my fists were palms slick with sweat. I checked my watch: how much longer do I have to do this? I wanted to run from the room. I tried for a while to keep my head above the flood, but that didn’t seem to be doing anything useful. Submerging myself seemed like the thing to do. I stopped thrashing around in the currents and something shifted. I noticed that all of this–the fear, the doubts, the clenched muscles–was my river, flowing through and around me. My ideas about being good at meditation were no more true or helpful than my ideas about being bad at meditation; they were very small answers, all loose and wrinkly like an ill-fitting suit. The belief that something amiss was just a dream and what I found was me, right where I had always been: here. I had never been anywhere else. The torrent didn’t subside, at least not right away, but instead of feeling life-threatening it felt life-affirming. Here was a sense of aliveness which, unbeknownst to me, was actually what I had been looking for.

I’ve noticed that answers to the Important Questions of life tend to come in a different form than the questions themselves. I think in black and white, but the universe prefers to paint in technicolor. In a classic exchange, someone asked the teacher Zhaozhou, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Zhaozhou gave the frustrating answbaby & giant rabbiter, “The cypress tree in the garden.” He wasn’t trying to be difficult (well, maybe just a little), he just knew that Bodhidharma’s travel plans weren’t really what the student wanted to know about. Zen’s history is filled with scores of people asking questions like, “What is the Way?” or “What is Zen?” (A favorite from my own inquiry repertoire is simply, “What the hell?”). Whether he knew it or not, the student was asking about something much bigger. The universe seems to be infinitely compassionate with us in the same way that Zhaozhou was. We can begin the search from any point, for any reason, and we are guaranteed get more than we asked for. If we really throw ourselves into the search itself, we might lose our reasons for searching. If we lose our reasons for searching, we might find ourselves in a vast, interesting place not far from where we started. And then we might find something quite precious that we even hadn’t known to look for.

There’s something about phyuboat control wheelssics and the law of conservation of energy that keeps coming to me with this koan, too. The mind seems to want to explain experiences in terms of loss and gain, but there are no holes in the universe (not any that I’ve seen, anyhow). There is a completeness in each moment, whether we can see it or not, and there just might be room in there for absence as well. In fact, if we lose something it might just be a door opening.

What comes to us doesn’t have to be pretty or make sense. When we’re truly, respectably lost, we’re not supposed to know what the hell we’re doing anyway. That’s an exciting moment: when our pretenses of knowing what it’s all about fall away, we find out what’s really true in our lives. We may find an ache or an unease there that we want to banish but it is not something we suffer alone–it is the ache of those who came before us and those who are with us now, and with any luck it will not stop with us.

naked divers
Dive in!








Waking the Dead

Howling relic

My koan small group 16 Bodhisattvas is spending time with this koan right now:

Save a ghost.

Shipwreck (2)When I think of ghosts, themes that immediately come to mind are: failed relationships, perceived inadequacies, fears I try to ignore, old resentments–things that seem not fully alive but not quite laid to rest.

When I first sat with this koan a few years ago, I was very interested in getting right answers, impressing my teacher, and getting to the next koan (“How do I save a ghost? Well, let’s get on with saving them, then!”). But between the seeking and finding a response that would earn me a stamp of approval, I caught a glimpse of something deeper and more interesting.

It was very clear that although in many ways I could run from my ghosts, somehow when I stopped they were always there waiting for me: at the grocery store, after the argument, in my own home. I have a memory of jogging down the sidewalk with the sense that apparitions were trailing out behind my head like phantom streamers on a child’s bicycle.

This poem might have come as a result of spending time with this koan:

demon dreaming 2In the afternoon, I laid down
on the sidewalk under a tree.
I closed my eyes and slipped down somewhere between the waking world
and the one of dreams.
There I saw demons dancing around a fire,
black and sketchy forms like
old woodblock prints from religious texts.
They called out to me as they danced,
We will cut off your head!
We will pull out your entrails!
We will tear you limb from limb!
I watched from some distance away as they fulfilled their promises on me.
I felt comforted as I watched,
knowing that these were my demons
that they were faithful.

While I was sitting this morning before work, I noticed a smidgen of feeling peeping out from under the hem of my consciousness. By reflex I brushed it off but then, noticing the callousness of my response, almost immediately I turned around to see what it was.

I didn’t want to go to work. It was that same sad, scared feeling I would get sometimes when Mom would drop me off at school as a child. Accompanying the feeling was an image of Lorna Doone shortbread cookies. A Bruce Hornsby song is playing. I don’t want to go.  There’s so much light at home, and space, and cool blankets. There’s Mom’s kindness. There’s a feeling of timelessness–the day stretches out ahead of me like the sky and there’s nothing yet filling it; there’s the reassuring promise that nothing will ever fill it.

I notice this is the same melancholy that still visits me at the ends of vacations and on Sunday evenings; it’s a small, nagging ache that I usually brush aside, just as I started to this morning. It seems to serve no purpose but then what does? Diamonds were not valuable until we decided they were and this ache, the cascade of images, the wisp of sensation of cool blankets and sunlight is mine.

All mine.

native saves baby

Maybe that’s all that’s needed.

But there’s more to walking with the dead than just putting them to rest. It’s not about exorcising unwanted spirits or purifying my soul or even healing grisly old wounds. When I dance with the dead it seems like my life takes on an extra depth–everything seems more alive and I’m not afraid anymore. In fact, I hadn’t even noticed how saturated in fear I was until I stepped out of it.

So what have you got in there? When you feel something shadowy tugging at your hem, do you swat it away? Those nagging sensations, memories, thoughts that you have a solution for–what is it like when you stop having a solution for them? Before you turn around to see who is following you, what is there? Are there places, objects or people that seem to raise the dead for you?

Skull collector
What ya got in there, crazyface?

Who am I and What is This Group?

It occurred to me as I was walking through the door of my house this evening that maybe it would be good for me to introduce myself.

Hi! My name is Jesse.Me smiling

I started this blog as kind of a support site for 16 Bodhisattvas, the koan small group I lead in Charlottesville, Virginia. But also, I love to write and although I share my writings with people, it seems like I want a place to put them where I can go back and look over them. And I guess other people can read them too, if they want.

Maybe a quick history of my practice is in order. I started meditating in April of 2006 after a pretty major life change. It just seemed like the right thing to do: slow down, listen to the birds, look inside. My dad started sending me boxes of the books about Zen and meditation he had collected over his own years of practice, and so I started reading them. I guess I seemed pretty interested, because Dad started looking for a teacher for me. Luckily, he found John Tarrant, who is the founder and director of Pacific Zen Institute.

About six months later, I was off to my first 7-day retreat: silence, lots of sitting, and interviews with teachers. Vegetarian food. I was a pack-a-day smoker at the time but decided I wouldn’t smoke while I was there. I had no idea what I was getting into. But sitting in a hotel hot tub after that first retreat I felt something had changed, although I wasn’t sure what. There was something about the soft, crispy whispering of the trees that I had never heard before and I remember the lines on a dirty pickup truck seemed to be just right. Apparently I got something out of it, because I accepted Dad’s offer to take me to another retreat 6 months later.

Photo by Jana Jardine
Look at me! I’m right here!

I spent the next several years softly concussing my head against the wall with koans, trying real hard and comparing what I was experiencing to what I expected to experience, based mostly on what I had read in books (needless to say, I felt pretty incompetent). When I look back on that time I tend to think, “What kept me going all that time, frustrated, feeling like I was getting nowhere?” I think my answer now is that I was probably getting the same thing I get from meditation now: intimate contact with my own life. The only difference is that now I realize that’s what I want, is what I’ve always wanted. There’s this thing we do in meditation–I think most of us do it–where we assume that there’s some golden ideal to achieve, and it can only be obtained through a great deal of hard, painful work whereby we purify the soul, let go of all worldly attachments, and achieve perfection so that we can Be Like The Buddha. Or something like that. But anyway, that’s all garbage, or at least unnecessary. Strangely enough, when I stop trying so hard to become something, it turns out I already am what I’ve been looking for.

Anyhow, eight years and many hours on the meditation cushion later, I’m still studying with John. Since 2006 I’ve spent time with a bunch of koans and the way I experience my life has changed. A lot. There have been some sudden changes and many more subtle, gradual changes. I’ve just returned from a PZI retreat in January to find that my approach to meditation and koans has shifted dramatically. At least once a year I realize that All Along I’ve been Doing It Wrong, and Now I’ve Really Got It, and this is one of those times. But it’s a good feeling, like finding out that your crush likes you back or being rescued after days lost in the desert. It seems to be mostly about the falling away of my ideas about how things need to be. There’s a tremendous joy and gratitude in that.

And so I guess this current enthusiasm has re-energized me about bringing koans to people.  I work at a mental health crisis stabilization unit and I’m starting to bring koans into my work with clients in a way I haven’t allowed myself to before. I’m also expanding my efforts to reach people who might be interested in what my koan group has to offer.

If you’re interested in getting your feet wet with Zen and koans, join us for meditation some Monday night. Here’s information about the meditation group.

If you’re interested in taking the koan path in perhaps a more deeper way, I teach in person in Charlottesville and via any medium of communication.  Here’s information about working with a teacher.

(Thanks to the lovely and talented Jana Jardine for the seagull photo)

(Thanks to Ashley Callen, Ishara Sweeney, Jack Randall and Mike Papciak for making an orange out of me so that I could attend sesshin)

16 Bodhisattvas: the name and the spirit behind it

Our name comes from a great old koan:

 In the old days there were sixteen bodhisattvas. They all got into the bath together and realized the cause of water. They called out, “This subtle touch reveals the light that is in everything. We have reached the place where the sons and daughters of the Buddha live.”

Who used all the hot water?
Who used all the hot water?

The name 16 Bodhisattvas reflects a sense of being submerged in this life together; it’s an acknowledgment of the way that we find awakening not only through our own personal practice, but also through our connection to others. When we move, ripples flow outward in all directions and when the wind rustles through the trees, something in us rustles, too. It’s good to have company: we support each other, we irritate each other, and we teach each other. We can’t really ever know which we’re doing at any given time, so the best thing might be to just dive in with an open heart. We don’t get enlightened on our own–even the uneven sidewalks and crunchy autumn leaves play their part–and even if we did awaken in isolation there would be no one with whom to share the luminous life we’d found.

A word about bodhisattvas: bodhisattva is an old Sanksrit word that, from what I understand, appears to mean something pretty vague like “enlightenment person.” A kind of rough mythology is that bodhisattvas are those who have taken up the path of awakening for the benefit of all beings (formally, there are vows and ceremonies and some accoutrements that go along with this status). In a looser way, perhaps anyone who seeks enlightenment for any reason is a bodhisattva. Certainly, any increase in the enlightenment quota of this world is a good thing, so maybe even seeking our own liberation is a boon to others.

Does a flea have buddha nature?
Does a flea have buddha nature?

Surely there are many interesting ways to look at the bodhisattva concept that are far more scholarly or accurate than mine, but I like to think that anyone who attempts even 1 second of meditation is officially a bodhisattva. From the first moment we try this practice, we have already moved in the direction of freedom, and that is enough. In fact, let’s break it down even further to suggest that even those people who are not intentionally seeking some experience of spiritual freedom, and even further those who seem to be causing more harm in the world than good–perhaps they are bodhisattvas as well. Perhaps our connections to them carry the light of awakening no less than our connections to friends and family, to the bright red cardinal in the snow, and that squirmy feeling in our guts.

So even if you’ve never meditated, or if you’ve done it a lot but have somehow managed to do it wrong all this time…if you’ve read this far, you might be a bodhisattva and anyway I welcome you to our group. Although I value the time I spend practicing at home, there is an undeniable something special about sitting with others and having conversation. That something special is what I would like this group to be about.

So that being said, there’s a nice hot bath waiting for you. You’re already in it, but you can always decide to notice it.

Go on! Kick off those shoes.